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King Lear at the Lark: Up close and personal like you’ve never seen him

February 28, 2015

You may think you know him, the tragedy of a doddering old man whose senses are beginning to leave him, and whose children use his failing powers to take what is his in the name of protecting him. It must have been as common an occurrence in Shakespeare’s day as it sometimes seems to be today. To hear the arguments of King Lear’s daughters Goneril (Maev Beaty) and Regan (Lisa Repo-Martell) it only makes sense to do so. Seen through the filter of his still sound mind in its lucid moments, it is betrayal that he calls out and confronts with all the passion his soul can muster. In Colm Feore’s King Lear, that is a lot of passion, and his early face-to-face confrontations with his daughters it spills out with volcanic fury, and is met with the same.

There are other betrayals—son against father, brother against brother, wife against husband—and they are played out with equal, unbridled passion, to their ultimate Shakespearean tragic and ruthlessly bloody end. But this performance is Lear as you’ve never seen it. Stratford Festival  has filmed the play live in their great theater in Ontario, Canada. Those in the audience are watching and responding to the performance, but they see it only from a distance.

This film brings us into the play in a way that watching it on stage can never do. The miracle of modern film brings the action, the faces, the tears of sorrow right to your own eyes. At its most beautiful moments—Cordelia reunited with her father, Lear comforting the blinded Gloucester—we the audience are moved to tears ourselves. At its most horrid—slash of the knife to the eyes, the brutal deaths by blade—we recoil in fear. Mercifully some of the deaths at the end of the play occur offstage. Lest anyone think the Bard was unusually bloodthirsty in his depictions of eye-gouging and murder, one has only to look to the recently discovered, violently mutilated remains of another medieval monarch, Richard III.

The performances are of the highest caliber, and we view them with the greatest clarity in detail, lighting, and sound. The one-night showing at the Lark is over now, but this is one version of King Lear you can see if it comes again to an art-house theater near you, or by renting a DVD to watch at home. It casts a whole new light on a play you may have thought you already knew.  Directed by Antoni Cimolino.

Look for two more of Shakespeare’s finest—King John and Anthony and Cleopatra—coming later this year to the Lark. Mark these dates on your calendar:  April 8 and May 21, 2015.  Don’t miss them.
If you haven’t already been to the Lark theater in Larkspur, give yourself plenty of time. It’s not easy to find, but believe me, if this is your only chance to see Shakespeare this close and personal, it will be well worth the effort.
Lark Theater:  549 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur CA  415-924-5111

“I-80, Nebraska” by David Hirzel

February 19, 2015

I-80, Nebraska
by David Hirzel.

Rain drops on a cold day in mid-July
like winter come early or a day caught
between hours, an indeterminate

sentence of half-light in mid-continent,
that vast shield of grass along the Interstate’s
straight line halving the earth, north and south.

This land is named by the names of towns,
speaks through the night with a radio voice
giving out farm prices, wears a face

seen standing at a long line of gas pumps
or on girls with too much makeup in cafes
small-talking the passing-through, those

driven between shores, dropped between
mountains where the land gives no horizon
more than a few miles distant for two days past

and one day yet to go. The light leaves early
under low clouds. Lights go on.
We blind each other from opposite directions.

The wet pavement’s downbeaten rain
rises like heavy smoke from each wheel’s track,
mist on the mirror of a mapped-out plan.

Of all possible ways we could have gone,
we chose this today, this divided highway
that brings us whipping each other on

with wind and a hard rain, a fear
of stopping and losing all that time hard-won
by going too fast too far too long.

The lights go on for miles beyond
the strength of this vision. In them our common purpose
unites in a roar and a gleam, and from behind

the swinging blades on this one window,
in the wet red sheen of all that lies
before me, I see the image and the glow

of a candle and your face. For one of those
coming faces framed behind wet glass,
there must be a moment’s recognition

to be found in mine, like a blurred sign
of all we are after, the same promise
of a night’s shelter, the same anonymous

gift of a straight, true, level path
leading us all into the distance where
the rain closes with the night, the glare

of headlights stops its argument
for two directions, constant and opposed,
and diminished clouds begin their slow ascent.

by David Hirzel, July 1985

“Better Never than Late”–Contra Dance in Sebastopol, or wherever you may be. . . .

January 27, 2015

If you’re not familiar with Contra Dance (and bear in mind that I am only just barely so), think square dancing-mingled with line-dancing spun to the old-timey tunes of a three-piece acoustic band. On Saturday night last, the band Ruby Mt. String Band consisted of fiddle, banjo, and guitar, the tunes were long-winded reels and waltzes.

The outward-reaching contra dance community welcomes newcomers to the art, and so novices like me and Alice and Sharab are provided with a short introductory lesson 1/24/15 at Wischemann Hall in Sebastopol, in the very basics of the dance before the fun begins.

The dance is made up of squares of four, interweaving with each other as they move in opposite directions, so that every sixty-four beats or so, you have a new partner with whom to run through the same figures. The figures include “balances” and “do-si-do’s” and “hays” and “swings” two or three or four times during the course of each reel. Since you might have six or eight squares constantly moving through each other, caller Celia Ramsay‘s admonition “better never than late” is particularly apt [and grist for the mill of another, barely related post].

The music is fast-moving, as are the twenty-four or so dancers. If the newcomer gets behind in the beat (we always do), there is no chance that by moving faster he will recover and be in place when his new partner is reaching out, balancing, or getting ready to swing. Don’t even try. “Better never. . .”

Now, in my view the best thing about contra-dance, indeed all the social dances of a bygone era, is this: every two minutes you get a new partner. And two minutes after that another. And you get to interact with each in a prescriptively chaste manner, with the “swing” a closed box with only two occupants, each holding the other around the waist or at the shoulder. “Swing” is a vigorously rhythmic spin to the music. The key to not getting dizzy is to look into your partner’s eyes.

Now, picture this. You are spinning across the dance floor and looking deeply into the eyes (is there another way?) of a complete stranger. Behind that stranger’s face the whole world is spinning. To your own new eyes it appears as though you are the lead actor in a romantic movie, and your partner is, well, your partner. And, from sheer joy, you are both laughing like hell. There is no other way you will become so intimate with a total stranger in under two minutes. And in another two minutes, you will have another with whom to become so engaged.

And everything about this moment is so completely chaste.

And you won’t get to have this moment, if you don’t make it happen. So, in this case it’s “better late than never.” But when you’re the newcomer on the Contra Dance floor, it’s the other way around. You could say that’s the magic of it. . . . And if you’re lucky like me, you get to leave the dancehall with the one you came in with.

Wisdom not mine: On A Sense of Entitlement

December 14, 2014

–from Jeff Burkhart’s column “Barfly”–

“. . . entitlement in people is directly related to how much success that they have, combined with how little they had to do to get it.”

Burkhart’s column “Barfly” appears weekly weekly in the Marin Independent Journal, and I’m sure elsewhere including online, at this link. It is the best feature in that paper, and is always full of insights about human nature seen from the working side of a bar.

“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” for the brave and stouthearted

December 3, 2014

We may all think we have an idea of what “Antarctica: A Year on Ice” must be like, but thanks to this documentary’s compelling mix of time-lapse photography and everyday life in the Antarctic over the course of a single year, we now know better. These two elements are nicely interwoven to show the personal aspect, the interaction of human life and environment meeting in the extremes of each. It isn’t for everyone, the movie makes clear, but for those who have chosen it—or those whom this life has chosen—there is no other.

Other movies may focus on the stark reality of cold and ice, wind and sky, the importance of science and its discoveries in shaping or saving our planet, the trials and triumphs of geographical exploration. This movie focuses on the people there, and we the audience are let in just a little bit into their unique world. A great deal of it revolves around what we in the rest of the world call “work,” six days of it a week, almost all of it in a captive indoor environment, but for those interviewed who have come here don’t seem to mind. It’s all a part of the package they’ve chosen.

The year begins with the landing of a C130 as it ferries in hundreds of people, the supplies needed to sustain the polar stations over the course of a year. McMurdo looks from the air, and from within, like a mining station posted on a bleak landscape. The station itself never gets prettier, but generous views of the surrounding mountains, seas, ice and sky leaven the film. We meet the people at their work and play, but as the year rolls on and the spools unwind, some of them come to the fore. We get to know them, the firefighters, the administrators, the shop clerks, and get some sense of why they keep coming back. There’s a wedding with the whole base is invited, engagement ring carved from ice and the wedding rings made by the machine shop of brass. As the saying goes regarding finding a mate down here, “the odds are good but the goods are odd.”

In the autumn, August, the C130 takes away the hundreds of summer people, and leaves behind the 90 or so who will winter over, making good the damage done to equipment and keeping the station over. The long day ends with a brief and welcome few weeks where the sun sets and rises the way it does in the rest of the world, and the people here enjoy waking up with the sun. Until it rises no more. Cold drops to the -70s, the wind blasts at 220 mph, snow finds its way into the tiniest cracks and fills entire well sealed rooms with snow. Overhead the aurora curtains drape their mystic curtains, the stars wheel round with a clear view into the outer reaches of the universe that can never be known elsewhere. A curious mental lapse called T3 interferes with normal thought patterns. In the firehouse, the men stop talking about women and dream incessantly about food, anything fresh. During this long dark night they change, evolving into other selves, different from and irrevocably altered from the selves they left behind.

This is never more evident than when the new crop of summer people come, and the winterovers retreat into their rooms, away from the crowds, the inexperienced. Still, they miss their homes, their families, the births and deaths that happen during their self imposed exile. And when that exile is over, the things they crave most are the aromas of fresh fruit and vegetation, the feel of grass beneath their toes, a proper sleep in a proper bed. For those of us who live out our ordinary lives, it is a longing we can never share, or fully understand.

Director: Anthony Powell. (New Zealand 2013) 91 min.

Through December 11, 2014 at the Rafael Theater, 1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA 94901
415.454.5813 Main Office
415.454.1222 Info-Line for Showtimes
Review by David Hirzel.

“Rocks in My Pockets”–more than just another animated feature film

November 23, 2014

Signe Baumane‘s new feature-length animated film “Rocks in My Pockets” makes good use of this medium to enter a territory that more conventional films cannot reach—that of your own mind. Her characters, simply rendered in two dimensions, wind their way through fanciful paper mache landscapes into some of the darkest, bleakest recesses of the mind—Baumane’s, her extended family’s, your own. Her deeply personal statement becomes universal.

It begins with the courtship of her Latvian grandparents and the unasked, unanswered questions of the madness in her family background, that we might today call mental illness. Their marriage evolves, as many do, into something less than romantic, with growing disillusionment and a concurrent resolve to do our best with the choices we have already made. There are moments of joy, but more of resignation, of sorrow, and they seem to resonate through succeeding generations in the film.

In 1941 war comes to Baumane’s native Latvia, laying waste with singular ravages such as we in 21st century USA can only imagine. Those who claim to defend and protect individuals and society instead betray and destroy them. These calamities give her family history a weight that bears down on her, and them. The hardships of their lives gave that depression, a richer, more fertile ground in which to thrive. We all of us have dysfunction in our families, in our own lives. Denial is woven through the narrative of this movie, as it is in all our lives.

The story takes place in Latvia. It is narrated in English entirely by Baumane; the accent of her native tongue places it outside our comfortable United States, in a foreign land where we find ordinary people in their inward human hearts no different from us. The artwork is entirely hers, thousands of handmade drawings moving through dozens of richly decorated paper mache sets giving a three-dimensional feel to this patient singleminded animation, produced in her apartment/studio in Brooklyn. Lighting, technical effects, script advice and voice coaching by Baumane’s long-time companion actor/director Sturgis Warner.

When asked how her family reacted to such exposure, Baumane indicated that some were aghast, some indifferent, and some appreciated that someone who know from inside who knew the truth had chosen to shine a light on it. This was one of the choices that she had to make on her own, free of the preconceptions of how others might respond drive her decisions of what to say, and how to say it.

Whether the film would make money, or find a wide audience, did not really enter into the decisions. This was a story she wanted to tell, in her own way. The essence of art.

There is light within, through, and beyond the darkness. Moments of joy, of dark humor, of connection and redemption. The rocks in our pockets have a dangerous weight, but with insight and resolve their weight can can be reduced; they can be cast away.

At Rafael Theater Monday, November 24 at 7:00.
1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA 94901 415.454.5813 Main Office 415.454.1222 Info-Line for
Film Website:
Review by David Hirzel

Three great things about Golden Gate Opera’s “Madama Butterfly” (11/9/14)

November 11, 2014

As is occasionally the case with my posts here, this one comes after the close of Golden Gate Opera‘s very short run of “Madama Butterfly” (two performances in one weekend, now ended) and can’t have much impact on filling seats. However, here are three things that made this performance particularly memorable.

1. Although the producer’s pre-performance comments from the stage included an apologia for a solo pianist (Andrew Dixon ) filling in for the orchestra, this one fact, this substitution added instead a wholly unexpected and marvelous aspect. For some of us, especially us novices in the art of opera-appreciation, there is already almost too much going on for our brains to accommodate: a story of great drama told in a completely foreign language, superb acting in a uniquely operatic manner, beautiful vocal arias and duets, costume, staging, backdrop. . . . By taking out 39 pieces of orchestra, there is that much more mental capacity to take in all these others. For me, this was an enhancement, not a detriment.

2. The libretto in English was not posted for all to view. For reasons just cited, my brain was not distracted from the performance. Reading is reading, it is not watching, it is not listening, it is not feeling. This allows the philistine opera-goer’s mind to pay attention to the drama unfolding before him, rather than reading and then interpreting as the show goes along. By filling in the intellectual gaps with the content of his own imagination, the listener becomes a part of the creative process, in a way one with Puccini, and the singers. A much better way, I think, to absorb the story, the drama, and Puccini’s memorable, often familiar music.

3. While a full house was missed for this matinee, and thousands of potential audience missed their opportunity to enjoy this wonderful opera—“A True Story: A diary, a novel a play”—in masterful performance, right here in San Rafael, those who did come had a chance to meet the performers in the Green Room after the show. You just don’t get this everywhere.

Among those performers in the Sunday matinee (11/9/14) were Miwako Isano as a lovely and poignant Madama Butterfly, and Alexandra Jerinic as her faithful maidservant Suzuki. The friendship between these two characters is the cement that holds the whole opera together, no better shown than in the stunning duet that ends Act One. David Gustafson‘s Pinkerton was tender and loving on his wedding day, and passionately distraught holding his one-time bride as her sad life passed away. Special note also for the set, the backdrop scrim and the lighting showing the passage of dusk to dawn.

In having seen the opera, in this way, I find my life that much the fuller.

My suggestions to you:
1. If you have a chance to see this or any opera with less than a full orchestra, view it as an opportunity rather than as a loss, a chance to see the familiar an an entirely new light
2. A streaming libretto does not necessarily add to your understanding of the story or your appreciation of the show.
3. When you can meet the cast and crew, take advantage. There is much more to them, their lives and yours than the show you have must shared.

–Review by David Hirzel–


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